1 Spain 2004 (February 15 - March 1, 2004)
San Lorenzo de El Escorial
Ah, it’s good to be on the road again. We spent our first 5 nights in Madrid. That gave us a couple of days in museums and a few days to finish assembling and ‘tricking out’ our bikes. Bill spent about 4 hours on our arrival day making the bikes just barely ridable (handlebar wrap still dangling) to our nearby hotel, but much remained to be done to set them up for touring. The 5 nights also let us get over the worst of jet lag, practice the most important directional words in Spanish (“left, right, straight ahead, roundabout, traffic signal, and bridge”) and set us up nicely to utilize the only “Bikes Allowed” day on the Madrid metro, which is Sunday.
Our first riding day was an odd blend of extremes: the day began with about 2 hours of metro rides from northeast Madrid near the airport to its southwest suburbs. The day ended with us gasping up a 9% grade on rough cobblestones into the town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial at about the 3000’ level. Later that night I read that only 12% of Spain lies steadily at a gradient of less than 5%--guess that was the first of a lot of serious climbing while in the country.
Map Man routed us to San Lorenzo to see the monastery, El Escorial, built in the late 1500’s by King Philip (Felipe) II. The massive building project served several agendas by: providing an ostentatious burial pantheon for his famous dad, Charles V (or Carlos I) and all subsequent Spanish monarchs; housing 100 monks to pray for the salvation of the royal family; creating grand wall space to display Philip’s vast collection of religious art done by the masters of the time; and giving him a basilica to load with icons to emphasize the preferences of the Catholic Counter Reformation in answer to the Protestant Reformation. Philip II’s religious fervor led him to spend 2-3% of the Crown’s income for 36 years to build El Escorial, despite bringing the Crown to bankruptcy at one point. Now it is mostly a bare building without the furnishings of the time, except for an extensive collection of paintings.
One of our little treats at El Escorial was to run into Don Juan of Austria again. Don Juan was the hero on the galley ‘Real’ in the Battle of Lepanto against the Turks in 1571. That battle has unexpectedly become a unifying theme for us, like our pursuit of the remnants of the Roman Empire. We first learned of the battle in Turkey in 2002, had the lesson was reinforced when reading up on Venice as the Venetians were among the other key players, then we saw a reconstruction of the Real in Madrid last December, and at El Escorial we saw Don Juan’s final resting place—a fine marble crypt. Don Juan was one of several bastard sons of King Charles V, so he didn’t make it into the pantheon but is honored in the hallways with the other lower ranked royals.
On to Segovia
After a week of sunny, though sometimes cool, weather we had our first bone-chilling day in Spain. We completed our challenging 2400’ climb to the top of a 6000’ pass to find people queuing to ski on the scant snow. Shivering against the strong summit winds, we congratulated ourselves for making the long pull of mostly 6% and then 9% grades at better than our usual rate of about 1000’ of gain an hour. Despite having ridden only 40 miles in the last 2 weeks and having ridden very little in the last 2 months, our great bikes and experienced bodies proved once again that conditioning isn’t the only factor in climbing. At the top, we quickly bundled ourselves in our heaviest clothes for the brisk descent. We reluctantly postponed our lunch until we reached warmer temperatures as few thousand few lower.
We savored the smooth, positive action of our new disc brakes as we flew down the narrower and steeper north side of the mountain. The elevation makers indicating each 100 meter drop (about 330’) ticked off but we kept getting colder rather than warmer as we descended. The wind chill factor from our 20 mph speed on this 40˚ F overcast day was about 18˚ F. And unfortunately, the ambient temperature didn’t increase as we got lower as anticipated, perhaps because of the heavier cloud cover on this side.
We rarely eat indoors for lunch but today I longed for a little café for a break from the biting cold. But we were in an unspoiled wilderness area with no commercial enterprises in sight to satisfy my fantasy. And unlike the south side which we ascended, there weren’t even any wide shoulder areas for us to safely pull into for some relief from our 18˚ wind chill. We shivered and felt the numbness from our stiffening hands and feet radiate towards our core and wondered if there would be a happy ending to this story or if instead it would become one of the few benchmarks for a really dreadful day on the road.
At last an abandoned, chained-off stone building provided us a place to at least stop. I quickly dug through my gear to find the little treasures I had stashed in my pannier—things to experiment with during what I expected to be a colder riding year. We huddled face to face, sharing the small, reusable chemical hand warmer that was slowly bringing more familiar sensations back into our fingers. I taped the single-use toe warmers to my socks, deciding that this was an excellent day to see if they were worth the outrageous price of $3. And out came the snowboarder’s insulated mittens I purchased for cold, rainy days. Bill settled for donning heavier socks as we struggled to warm ourselves.
Even though it wasn’t rainy or windy, we still couldn’t stay warm once we were back on the bikes. The first town was about 10 miles from the pass and we still hoped to find an eating establishment there that was open--one that kept its doors closed to the cold air. Finally buildings began appearing and we pulled into the first restaurant with their lights on. It must not have been a proper meal time as the owner and staff were gathered around a large table enjoying lunch with no guests in sight.
The owner smiled kindly as I gestured the question “Are you serving food now?” a question we hadn’t needed to ask since we had only ‘self-catered’ while in Spain.
He nodded and showed us into a linen and stemware appointed dining room that made us feel horribly out of place being dressed in our bulkiest sports wear. The heaters weren’t on in the room, but it was substantially warmer than the outdoors and at least the front door was closed to the cold.
We declined the immediate offer of beer as I struggled to decode the menu with the help of our phrase book (my vocabulary is always heavily slanted towards market words rather than restaurant phrases). Our self-consciousness wore off once we managed to order and we breathed more easily as we felt the onset of the first waves of chills in our bodies that signaled the gradual warming of tissue that has been cold too long.
Our very inexpensive meals were wonderfully flavorful though predictably long on the meat and fat and short on the veggies and carbohydrates that we craved. Our muscles continued to slowly warm and our minds and bodies relaxed into the awkward social situation of being the only guests. We weren’t toasty warm when it was time to leave but were finally at the point where the small amount of pedaling on our now more gradual descent would keep us warm. And with the cold-induced tension in our bodies released, we were able to savor the joys of the day as we rode the rest of the way to Segovia, diligently practicing the new words we had been forced to learn while navigating the restaurant’s menu.
Segovia is a largely monochromatic, yellow-orange town that creates its visual interest with texture instead of color. One literally in-your-face façade is completely covered with defensive, closely-spaced, 10” deep pyramid shaped mounds projecting out to the passerby. Few of the stucco buildings are smooth surfaced but instead have filigree-like patterns applied as a second, decorative layer of stucco. Brick is also used to create unusual dimensionality and other surprising architectural details abound. And the wrought iron balcony railings all seem to be one-of-a-kind instead of ‘standard issue’ as in most towns. We were captivated by looking up at the facades and balconies like we usually only do in Art Nouveau Mecca’s like Prague and Barcelona. The tourist info folks probably wouldn’t be pleased to hear this, but we enjoyed looking at the town’s surfaces more than their much heralded cathedral and reconstructed fortress.
In addition to its facades, Segovia is also distinctive for its Roman aqueduct that traverses the edge of the old town. It is unique in that it’s the first aqueduct of several we have seen, which is still in use. It is over 9 miles long and its arcade in town is almost a 100’ tall. Bill kept marveling that this still-standing, 1st century ce granite block structure was made without the use of mortar.
A bracing 28˚ F greeted us on our next riding day north out of Segovia. The forecasted rain didn’t materialize, but the biting cold certainly got our attention. With the wind created by our riding speed, we were experiencing wind chill factors in the single digits. We don’t ever remember touring in below-freezing temperatures. But the low humidity in the region made the cold temperatures more tolerable, relegated the ice to the ditches and left the road surfaces dry.
This cold snap had however upped my resolved to test out all of our new cold weather accessories and so today I was riding in my new battery heated socks. Like the single-use toe warmer pads I used 2 days before, these battery socks didn’t keep my feet warm at these low temperatures. Both products helped--even though my feet were unpleasantly cold they weren’t stiff and achy like Bill’s were without the external heat boost. Toasty warm would be wonderful, but we were clearly exploring the end of the spectrum where any improvement was better than none.
Our previous sightseeing day in Segovia had also motivated us to try the lighter fluid powered hand warmer that I also had brought along. We had suffered in the morning as we visited the open-to-the-air fortress and cathedral and ducked into our hotel to pick up the hand warmer for our afternoon outing. It was an immediate success. We swapped it back and forth as we took turns snapping photos—a process that instantly chilled our fingers in the cold wind. Being able to readily rewarm our hands kept our whole bodies warmer. We haven’t quite figured out how to use the hand warmer on the bike—perhaps in a little pouch hanging down our backs would help on these really cold days.
I have one experiment left in my traveling laboratory of cold-fighting aids and that is swaddling my toes with lamb’s wool, which comes highly recommended by a cold-toed friend. And I suspect I’ll have a suitable test-day for the lamb’s wool soon. The problem with these fine experiments is that since they were experiments I only have one of each and we aren’t sure which products we’ll be able to buy or restock while in Europe. And I know Bill is eyeing that lighter fluid hand warmer for sure. (See “Staying Warm & Dry” under SideTrips on the Home Page for more details about our cold weather wardrobe and further testing of the new accessories.)
Well, an hour after writing about our chilly ride out of Segovia it started snowing! We were settled into our tiny village pension for the night and were out visiting its historic fortress when the white stuff began falling. It didn’t stick but sure made us happy that we had traversed the 6000’ pass 2 days earlier--before this weather system settled in. And we’ll be peeking out the hotel window first thing in the morning to check for snow on the ground before we start packing up for another riding day.
Rain, Snow & Blowing Winds
Yes, those few snowflakes were just the beginning of what looks to be at least a 10 day streak of nasty weather. This morning, which is 4 days after those first flakes, we headed out on our bikes in a light snowfall. We had a 25-30 mile ride ahead of us and decided to chance it as the snow wasn’t sticking and only rain was forecasted—we hoped the snow was a short-lived fluke.
The temperature as we left the hotel was a reassuring 39˚ F and Bill noticed that the snow wasn’t sticking nor did any of the cars passing by have snow piled on them. But the brisk wind and driving snow hit us once we were out on the open road--after leaving the protection of the town’s buildings. I watched the temperature on my handlebar ‘instrument console’ slowly drop as we pedaled and continuously evaluated our level of foolishness. Scanning for ice forming on the road would be the preoccupation of the day.
Had we not been stuck in B&B rooms for days on end over a period of about a month last spring in Greece, we would have likely been more willing to sit this day out. But this day at least looked possible as a riding day whereas the landslides and gale force winds on several Greece islands made riding out of the question. We would be quite willing to lay over an extra day for one bad weather day, but all of the weather in the extended forecast looked bleak so we had decided to give riding a try.
I periodically reported the temperature as it dropped to 36˚, then 34˚, and then 32˚. Bill scrutinized his map and reported that we’d be pelted by the snow from headwinds and crosswinds the entire ride. We compared notes on the chill in our hands and feet as we monitored the changing amounts of accumulating snow in the fields.
While we realized there was a chance that attempting the ride today was incredibly stupid, we also recognized that there was an even better chance that it would be just fine. The temperature should rise a little with the usual warming of the day even though the sun was no where to be seen. And if we were lucky, that would compensate for the temperature drop of the expected 700’ elevation rise (that turned out to be 1100’). We felt confident as we pressed ahead and we knew from experience that the odds of staying comfortable on this 3 to 4 hour ride were immensely greater than if we were looking at a 6 to 8 hour ride in these conditions.
We pedaled on, constantly on the look out for black ice and monitoring the chill in our feet. The relatively steady 2-3% grade was perfect for the day: steep enough to generate some body heat without generating a lot of sweat. The temperature fluctuated from 32˚ to 36˚ and the snow was occasionally mixed with rain and surprisingly, neither of these changes correlated at all with the elevation changes. The ice on the road never appeared even though snow was accumulating on a couple of the curves. We stopped 3 times for quick snacks and relief from the snow stinging our faces with the constant wind and each time were surprised to discover how much snow had stuck to our jackets.
We were on the road 4 hours to cover just 28 miles, but we were pleased with our effort. We gambled and won on this day as the conditions didn’t appreciably worsen and we were reasonable comfortable (well, for a really cold, wet day). As expected, we were able to check into another Spanish hotel with ample heat to dry out our clothes and quickly shake our chill.
Our trek up into the hills on this snowy day was to take in Gregorian chants sung by monks at the Santa Domingo de Silo monastery. We have 2 CD’s of similar chants that we’ve immensely enjoyed over the years and looked forward to being surrounded by that amazing sound in a live performance. The monk’s several daily services are open to the public and we elected to take in the ‘chant only’ service at 9:30 pm.
I had expected a performance-type event and was surprised and disappointed to discover that instead this was the last obligatory activity of the day for 25 sleepy guys. They looked all-business in their crisp, identical black pleated robes as they filed in to the front of the chapel. But it wasn’t long until they were yawning, scratching their heads and noses, and fidgeting about like they were ready for bed. Two facing groups of monks quietly chanted back and forth to each other for about 20 minutes, one rang the bells that we have heard at the closing on our CDs, and that was it. The few other people in the audience got up and left and we took the cue and did the same.
We were quickly back out in the cold, astonished at the discrepancy between our expectations of a full evening immersed in sound and the reality of the short farewell serenade to the day. We chalked it up to one of those things that we are glad we did ‘cause otherwise we would have thought we missed out on something really grand.
The cloisters (covered walkway around an inner courtyard) were another reason for visiting the monastery and the carvings on the column capitals were indeed fantastic. Instead of being just architectural-type flourishes like on most capitals, these capitals were depictions of real and imaginary animals or religious scenes. And we were surprised to discover that they are one of those historical sights that keep showing up in the books and brochures we see after leaving the area.—one of those sights that doesn’t knock your socks off at the time but slowly becomes a reference point or part of a unifying theme.
“I hope it doesn’t snow today…”
Yes indeed, this is the first bike tour where we daily have found ourselves commenting about snow. As we were riding to our next sight seeing venue of Burgos, Bill commented “I hope it doesn’t snow today.” He then quickly changed that wish to it not precipitating. In this interval of dry, mostly non-sticking snow, we have come to prefer it to rain. At least the snow blows off us and doesn’t as readily saturate our clothing as the rain does. And getting shelter from the wind is enough to make us comfortable for a short rest, whereas with rain we need a roof overhead to really take a break. But the prevalence of the snow is certainly a bad commentary on the unpleasant air temperature.
At one point in our ride north from Lerma to Burgos, we were hit by stinging bits of snow or sleet that had us riding with one mittened hand protecting the left side of our faces. (I expected to being wearing those REI Snowboarder Mittens in the rain, not the snow.) Fortunately that was short lived, but it did prompt me to dig out a small, mechanical wind gauge that I brought along this year to educate and amuse us (last year it was the ‘inclinometer’ that filled that role.) The gusts at that point were in the 20 mph range, with steady winds running 10-15 mph. Five mph on the flats was a common top speed for us that day, half of what we would expect under good conditions, and we often thought “If only it was a tailwind…..”
A couple hours later we were struggling up another 9% grade on our last miles into Burgos, still being buffeted by the winds. Out came the wind gauge once we reached the top of the plateau and now the gusts were to 40 mph with the background winds at 20 mph: “No wonder it was hard to stay on the road.” I read in our Lonely Planet guide book the next day that some of the residents of Burgos describe the weather here as “9 months of winter and 3 months of hell.” Even Portlander’s aren’t that harsh about our wet, dreary weather.
And indeed, the residents of Burgos take this fierce weather in their stride. It’s the only city we’ve been in where the large numbers of gleaming fur coats are sported with sturdy, sensible shoes. You don’t see many women in dresses or the much loved in Europe, high-fashion heels in Burgos’s chill. Another telling feature of the harsh regional climate was the unusually high percentage of apartments with glassed-in balconies, which I am sure are a welcome thermal barrier.
We shivered indoors as well when taking in the famous cathedral in Burgos, the 3rd most important cathedral in of all of Spain. It is mostly a Gothic design that unlike many we have seen in Spain, hasn’t been stripped during one revolution or another. This cathedral displays a distinctly Spanish architectural style called Plateresque. I never have much confidence that I’ll be able to distinguish shifts in art styles but we sure could see this one. The name comes from the Spanish word for “silversmith” and refers to the intricately detailed stone carving done inside the cathedral, like that normally reserved for embellishing fine silver. No photos were allowed in the church, so unfortunately we can’t show an example of the complexity of the style.
Along with visiting the Burgos cathedral and brushing up on the legend of the much-romanticized Spanish rouge ‘El Cid,’ a trip to the tourist info office was in order this day. It yielded ‘good news-bad news’ as we were told that 1 of the 2 passes between us and the north coast was closed today due to the snow and that the lower pass that Bill was eying was also vulnerable to being closed at any time. We wouldn’t be there for a few days, so we hoped the weather would improve by then. We felt lucky to also be told that the nearby archeological site, Atapuerca, could only be visited by appointment on the weekend in the winter and the appointments could only be made on weekdays. Normally that is too many hoops for us to jump through for sightseeing but this time it was perfect: it was Friday and we planned to be there the next day, Saturday. I struggled to make the reservation by phone and was finally told that it might not be possible because of the weather—that they would have to call us back at our hotel.
When the late afternoon call canceling our tour at Atapuerca came during another round of light, dry snow flurries, we decided it was time to check-out the long range weather forecast. We had been doing what good cyclotourists do, and that was just plugging away despite the obstacles, but it seemed like it was time to reassess. The news at the internet shop wasn’t good: 33˚ F would be the high temperature in Burgos over the 4 next days, with the low’s dipping to 13˚ and the winds (not the gusts) for our next 2 riding days were expected to be 28 mph, with ongoing light snow in the forecast. Even worse, the winds today in our ‘retreat from the harsh mesa to the coast’ town of Bilbao were forecasted at 40 mph.
It was definitely time to think out of the box and come up with a new plan. All reasonable options were considered: taking the trains and then the weekly boat to the Spanish held Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa; taking the trains to Lisbon (where the weather seems to always be good) then biking north along the Portuguese coast; stashing the bikes and doing a few museum days somewhere like London while the crummy weather here and there improved; and staying put in our Burgos hotel for 3 more days where we at least have sites to see, good food markets, and a comfortable room.
We finally settled on the strategy that would take the least amount of time to plan, research, and implement and that would get us riding the soonest: taking the train to Santiago de Compostela on the western coast of Spain. We had unintentionally been following parts of the pilgrimage route to Santiago and had been asked numerous times if we were headed there—now we could say “Yes” instead of “No”. Bill had planned for us to bike west along the northern Atlantic coast, though probably not getting that far west. This way we would still be making use of most of the maps he had collected and the planning he had done but it would get us off this freezing mesa and out of the snow.
Our commitment to changing our plans was nicely reinforced by the evening snow finally sticking and making the first noticeable accumulation. So, in the morning it will be off to the train station to get tickets for the 1 or 2 day trip which we’ll begin the following day.
Bugging out, or exiting our situation, proved to be harder than expected. The Burgos train station folks were quite unhelpful as to how we would get to Santiago de Compostela on the western coast, so we just got on the next train to a significant train crossroads city and hoped for more information. The news was disappointing once we got there. We just happened to be in a region of Spain where there are 2 different, non-overlapping train companies that don’t share information about each other and on some of the presumably rare Spanish train lines that don’t carry bikes for segments of their routes.
We ended up putting in close to a 14 hour day on milk-run trains and in train stations, including doing some backtracking. But we are generally quite successful at getting our way and despite being repeatedly told “It’s not possible” we managed to get all the way to the Spanish west coast to the port city of Vigo with our bikes in tow. Santiago de Compostela had been a somewhat arbitrary goal—picked because as a tourist destination it should have good train connections and it was far west enough to be out of the brunt of the storm according to the CNN’s European weather map. Map Man was secretly very pleased to have ended up farther south—almost to Portugal—as it lined us up to do the fiord-like coastline of Spain. He had planned on touring just a part of the northern coast of Spain on our way to France and now we were positioned to do all of the western and northern coasts. I was pleased with the general plan as it would give us a second chance at the archeological site of Atapuerca and also that of the Altamira caves. We could be in for a lot of rain along the coast, but we should be spared the freezing temperatures and snow of the mesa.
The People and the Land
It’s always hard to let go of a goal, so it was a little disappointing to abruptly abandon the mesa and arrive at the coast by train. But besides the dramatically better weather, there was some consolation in that the central part of Spain that we had been riding wasn’t particularly scenic. Most of the time we were around 3000’ above sea level on a plain. The flat tops of the plains tended to be on the boring side with widely spaced pines on tree farms or intermittent patches of cultivated land. There was a shortage of rolling hills and villages to add visual interest and tickle the imagination. Often the road was flat and straight for as far as we could see. We perked up from the monotony of the straight roads when we dropped down into a river valley or climbed up into the hills.
The river valleys are unusual in that they tend to be very broad and shallow yet terraced from erosion. Some of them have colorful enough soils to vaguely resemble the Grand Canyon if it had been stretched out sideways so it was broad and less steep. The cultivation in these valleys is predictably more intense, further adding to the visual interest with pockets fruit trees and vineyards. And when the road had us climbing 500’ or 1000’ up into the hills, the scenery is always more interesting. Those roads are usually windy with interesting vantage points and more texture from the natural assortment of vegetation.
The density of tourist sites is also on the low side in this western part of central Spain. In one town it’s the church portal that is worth tracking down, in the next town it is a fortress with roots in the 11th that was reconstructed in the 20th century, and then there is an assortment of monasteries in which you can visit the cloister and perhaps a several-roomed museum. We are glad to see these sights but they didn’t ooze with history or make us feel like we had seen something profound. They do create a collective significance so that by the time we left the area we had a good sense about the local tradition of fortresses and monasteries but no one of them was particularly memorable on its own.
One of the things really missing from most of the historic buildings in central Spain are furnishings or decorations from the period. Most of the buildings are stripped bare. In some other regions we’ve seen historic buildings outfitted with typical furnishings from the era with a disclaimer that they aren’t original to the particular building. The Czech Republic is awesome in that many of their castles and fortress-like buildings were still occupied by members of the family line and loaded with armor and furnishings collected over the centuries up until 1945, when the Communist government confiscated and yet retained them intact. We’ve yet to see anything that well-preserved in Spain.
Like the more heralded buildings, the homes and small village buildings on the mesa are a mix of handsome stone construction and sagging old buildings made of uncut rock or mud brick. Collapsing, half-roofed buildings are intermingled with new buildings in every community—the crumbling ones seem to be built around rather than torn down. Many mud brick homes and buildings are still in service, even in the heart of town. A recent view out the window of our small hotel had me looking squarely at a 2-storied mud brick building without its protective stucco shell.
And it’s odd to be in an old town with its traditional buildings, some sagging and tilting, and see the old-style businesses inside them. There will be a string of tiny shops: one selling perfume and house paint; the next with toys, house paint and perfume; and another with groceries and outerwear. Two blocks later you emerge from old town and there is a medium-sized supermarket and a string of other modern businesses. You can’t help but wonder how much longer the tiny little old town shops can survive.
The relative sparseness on the mesa of sights to thrill us has sent Map Man to his books. He is always planning future routes as we tour through an area, sometimes thinking 2 or 3 years ahead. And the lower yield of tourist goodies in this area has him advancing his plans to guide us through Toledo, Granada, Cordoba, Seville and other Spanish cities richer with historical sites of interest for this fall.
Spain is high on Map Man’s list of places to be, despite the disappointments on the mesa. The generally warmer weather on the coasts is a big draw as much of our traveling year is during the cool and cold seasons. And we continue to appreciate the patience and presence of most of the Spanish people. They are amazingly undeterred by the absence of a shared language. They don’t retreat in the slightest when the language barrier is revealed and stay fully engaged, waiting for us to give them something to work with, whether its gestures or butchered Spanish. By their actions they dramatically teach how powerful it can be to be able to speak a handful of words and recognize a few more. It certainly makes us feel welcome, encourages us to expand our vocabulary and makes it inviting to return to Spain again.
Here and There
We’ve only been on the road again for a few weeks, making the similarities and differences between our 2 lives—traveling and at home—more distinct. At home, I am a die-hard shower fan who would never even thinking of taking a bath. On the road, I’ve learned the pleasures of a nice hot bath, when a tub and sufficient hot water are available. It seems that a bath transcends the cultural differences and gives me deep comfort that I am accustomed to meeting other ways when at home.
In our traveling life, we have less control over our sensory experiences in a day than at home. We don’t have the cozy lounging clothes to change into, a comfy chair to curl up in, handy music to enjoy, or familiar surroundings to putter in. We do put effort into selecting pleasing spots to munch our lunches and to having reasonably pleasing lodging at night, but sometimes ‘the pickings are slim’ and we are left making do. That’s where the hot soak at the end of the day can tip the balance and compensate for comforts that came up short when on the road.
And we have to laugh at ourselves, despite the challenges of shopping for quality produce in some countries; we actually do better at hitting our targeted 10 servings per day of produce when we are on the road. At home, we lose that intimate relationship with our food that we have when traveling. Having no refrigerator when traveling means that our produce is less likely to get forgotten too. And having a very small overall inventory of food on the road means that when a snack is needed that the fresh stuff is more likely to get noticed.
I’ve commented before that I believe the intense and highly varied visual stimulation we get on the road diminishes the need for variety in our material things. At home, a new T-shirt, some pretty paper napkins, a new serving dish, or a new plant in the garden were ways to put a little pizzazz into the daily routine. Here, we wear the same 3 outfits over and over again, look at the unchanging 2 panniers of possessions and don’t find it monotonous. So at ease are we with ‘the same old stuff’ that we often end up wearing many of the same clothes when we are back in the States because it is so easy and the layering combinations so versatile and we don’t deeply crave the variety.
On the road or at home we both have a hunger to learn. At home, most of that appetite was satisfied through studies that related to our professions. On the road, the study of history and languages fills our brains with some fairly big side trips for both of us into photography. And Bill of course is constantly learning more than he ever wanted to know about bikes and the internet.
One thing that is exactly the same when we travel as when we are at home and that is the feeling of “too much to do and too little time.” When traveling, we don’t have the pull of jobs, visiting with family and friends, and attending classes or workshops, but we do have just as much conflict about what gets done and what doesn’t get done each evening. There is always a long list of things we’d like to read, studying that would be satisfying to pursue, correspondence to follow-up on, photos to cull and little chores like mending that keep getting postponed. It is amusing that setting priorities and time management is still a very real challenge for both of us in this seemingly simpler life.
Where We Are Now on 4/19/04
We are a week into our tour of southwestern France after spending a little over 2 months cycling in northern Spain. The original plan was to ride north along the Atlantic coast, though we are now detouring east to see some ancient cave paintings and their associated museums. That detour may enlarge as the days of cycling through an enormous old pine tree farm planted in an expanse of sand along the French coast has Map Man seriously looking for a scenery change in the form of "Plan B." Touring Iceland in July has been our goal for this summer, but even that is at risk in the current reconsideration of our grand plan. Making a 700 mile loop around to the ancient caves of southern France, heading for the Alps and Italy, and supplementing emerging plans with renting a car, taking the train or a boat are all being considered. We'll likely have the information we need to make a final decision in about a week.